Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eastern Europe, part IV

The Eastern Europe series continues to provide rich cinematic viewing. The previous collections involved only watching features but this selection has six documentaries and three features. When I started this experiment more than a month ago, I wanted to study Eastern European soccer and film together. But as the weeks have gone on, the soccer spotlight has fallen a bit short. Still, the films have made provided a good viewing point into past and current Eastern Europe.


Part I started with war and collapse of a nation. Other topics were touched upon in part II but part III ended with the army take-over of a city. Part IV picks up exactly from that theme.....

Nation & city under siege:

Emir Kusturica's Underground had this memorable line: "A war is not a war until a brother kills a brother". Well in Kusturica's When Father was away on business, it is not a brother but a brother-in law who turns on his family. But one can argue such a situation is bound to happen in a state when people are kept under constant watch and citizens are encouraged to put the good of the nation before individual freedom. While this political situation is considered evil, in soccer it is such a situation that works wonders for a team -- if all players work hard for a team and put their own egos aside, sometimes a team can achieve victory. So if something works in soccer, then why can't it work in society? The difference is that in soccer, if a person goes against the system, he is not tortured and put in prison.(unfortunately, Iraq is an exception where soccer players were put in prison and beaten after bad results. A topic for another time...)

So what happens when a man is put in prison for something he said? It sets a horrible example for others and keeps the fear machine working. As the film's title points out, the kids of such a father are told that their beloved dad is away on business while he is locked away in a prison. Only when the kids are older do they understand what their father had to go through. As it turns out, the father was arrested by his brother-in law but it was the father's girlfriend who tipped off the brother-in law. So when the father returns to society, he seeks out the ex-girlfriend for revenge. And revenge ends up being a passionate animal like love making session. While the fucking is going on, the innocent son, who was kicking a soccer ball, catches a glimpse of his father with another woman. He leaves the soccer ball on one side and instead watches the other game. What is going through his mind? We will never find out but the goal has been scored and the soccer ball & the woman lay harmlessly on the ground. Waiting to be touched day...

A peaceful city. Then war and destruction. Death is at every corner as buildings are destroyed. Slowly, the city tries to rebuild and finds some joy when some of the enemies are sentenced for their crimes. Sergei Loznitsa does a remarkable job in putting together a film from Soviet government archives of the siege of Leningrad. Blockade has no dialogues but is actual archive footage between 1941-1944 which shows how the city is shattered. Loznitsa has recorded a new sound-track which is remarkably in sync with the images shown on screen. This film proves that sometimes scripted film can't even close to the drama that everyday life offers. But it is amazing that someone was actually capturing all these images back in 1941?

The beautiful Hungarian film Happy New Life never really tells us which city is under watch but in the film's fictional world, we learn that young kids were taken from their homes and then experimented upon. After more than decade, these kids are released into society as adults. Who are these kids? What was their childhood like? These people will never know and they struggle with modern life. We come across such an adult who tries to find about his past. But all he gets are a few pieces of paper which tell him nothing. So he is forced to resort to his own ways to dig up his past. He goes about his regular life but each day is painful for him and he is constantly on the verge of living and dying. Amazingly shot, this vintage film lets the images paint as a picture of a suffering victim who is trying to cope with life after his government took away his innocence. An official selection for TIFF 2007 and hopefully it makes out for CIFF and VIFF as well.

Sometimes only a portion of a nation can is clamped down upon while the rest of the country goes about their life as usual. In Balkan Champion Réka Kincses shows the political struggles that her ethnic Hungarian father faced in Transylvania. The current geographical map shows that Transylvania belongs to Romania but it was once part of Hungary. So understandably, the region is populated by plenty of ethnic Hungarian people whose rights were not recognized by the Romanian government. Kincses tried to fight for his people but the political games forced him into exile. Réka does a wonderful job of digging into the past and tries to understand the reasons for her father's problems. This is an emotional film that shows the suffering that the family also had to undergo as a result of the father's political battles.


A nation's political situation is not the only cause for a individual's suffering. Circumstances sometimes deal an unlucky hand to some people. The powerful Czech doc Marcela brutally shows the destruction and suffering of Marcela. Her life has been captured by tv for over 25 years and we see it go from good to terrible. In 1980, everything was good for Marcela -- she was newly married with the love of her life. But a year after the birth of her first child, her marriage starts to fall apart and she gets a divorce. A few years later, the reunion of Marcela and Jiří takes place (once again captured on camera) but that ends again. We see this woman change over time and find her getting sucked into deeper depression. The hammer blow comes when tragedy strikes her daughter, plunging Marcela into utter darkness. But she survives her attempted suicide attempts and continues to carry on when the camera leaves her in 2006.

This is another example of the power that documentaries have over scripted features. Although watching such raw footage of a person's collapse is not pleasant viewing but it is still worthy cinema because it can show how easy it is to get sucked into an endless cycle of misery. One can see the film and acknowledge the problem but can everyone be strong enough to fight their inner demons?

The Romanian dark comedy A Roof Overhead shows the suffering two women go through in a mental hospital. Their suffering is almost matched by the constant stress that the doctors have to go through daily while working in the under-staffed and under-funded hospital. So in order to alleviate the funding problem, a lot of the patients are discharged. So the two women find themselves free in society. However, they find more problems in their everyday life. On a suggestion by one of them, the two head to the country side to live in an inherited house. But the country house is no longer a luxury place; it does not even have a roof (hence the title). We come across plenty of colorful and eccentric characters in the country-side. An often hilarious film with a tinge of sadness tucked away. The movie feels similar to The Oak, another film which managed to capture the raw spirit of the Romanian life. And yes, the gypsy music is also present.

The well shot Romanian film Village of Socks shows how poverty & unemployment effects life in a small Romanian village. Thankfully, some of the village women are able to make money thanks to sock making to generate some income. At times the topic might be dry but this is a polished film that captures some precious shots of everyday life.

Beauty & everyday life:

Miss Universe 1929 chronicles the life and times of Austria's only Miss Universe. The film uses rare raw footage and old photographs to show a love story of Lisl Goldarbeiter, Austria's shining beauty. Even though there are plenty of repeated shots and dull moments, the film has some merit when it highlights everyday life as the World War disrupts a country.

I first heard about Georgia thanks to Shota Arveladze & Kaka Kaladze, two acclaimed soccer players. But it is Kaka's story that made plenty of headlines. In 2001, his brother was kidnaped in Georgia and a huge ransom was demanded. Despite his parents paying the ransom, the brother was not returned. It is believed that his brother's dead body was found in 2005. What can one infer from this? Even a powerful soccer player, a national hero, can't use all the political and financial resourced to get his brother back. So what of the ordinary citizen?

So I was glad to get the chance to watch Akhmeteli 4, a documentary which shows everyday life of the residents in the director's former apartment building. Artchil returns back home to Tbilisi after more than a decade to see how things have changed. A simple film which manages to show how everyday citizens are going about their lives. We even see the locals betting on Western European soccer scores. It is amazing to see how much knowledge the locals have of Western soccer while most of Western Europe hardly knows anything about Eastern soccer. But I am sure that knowledge will improve in upcoming years as Eastern European soccer players are becoming very important to the big European soccer leagues. In the meantime, the betting will go on -- will Chelsea win by 2 goals, with the Dutch team avoid defeat this week? The bets are placed in Eastern Europe, the games are played in the West, and maybe, just some money makes it to the winner in the East. So as to continue the circle of betting in between shots of coffee and alcohol.

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